We’re about to launch into a discussion of the Christians in God’s Not Dead, but before we get rolling on that, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the dissonance between this movie’s stated audience and goals, and what its audience and goals actually are.
I bring this up because I ran across a reviewer discussing an interview with the movie’s creators wherein they confessed that they’d removed references to Catholicism from the movie. I was startled me enough that I had to double-check it, and yes, they’re right, they did. There’s not a single reference to Catholicism in that whole movie that I could find. That got me thinking about one of this movie’s many dishonesties: who its target audience really is.
The removal of all things Catholic might seem like an unusual thing to confess, at least at first. You’ll probably be as shocked as I was to discover that the creators of this movie are in fact Catholics themselves, in the interview in question about scrubbing references to Catholicism. This movie’s vibe is that it wants to be an all-singing, all-dancing reason to believe in the Christian god, and it relies heavily on apologetics and scientific ideas advanced by Catholics. Catholics are a huge chunk of the Christian body–at least an arm or a leg, right? So logically they shouldn’t care what Christianity people convert to. But they do, very much.
There’s a particular flavor of Christianity they want people to consider, and that flavor really hates Catholicism–almost as much as it hates atheists and liberals.
But you won’t hear anyone in this movie say that. Kevin Sorbo is on record as saying that he wants the movie to convert agnostics at least, and that he thinks he “opens up discussion.” (And it does, just not in the direction he’d clearly like the conversation to go!) I’ve heard other people involved with this movie say similar things over the last year as well. But if they want to do that, they’ve got a funny way of showing it.
I think that this movie is having a discussion all right–one aimed at a very particular and very ugly flavor of Christianity: the toxic Christian.
Toxic Christians are that subset of Christians that all the other Christians rush to distance themselves from. They actively make the religion’s credibility and reputation falter. They’re proudly ignorant, happily self-deluded, dishonest in their testimonies, and bull-headed, stubborn, and unwilling to listen to anybody who doesn’t parrot back their ideas. They don’t even generally realize how far they’re setting back their religion’s cause; they are the anti-witness for Christianity and don’t even know it. They’re the ones advocating pseudoscience in lieu of actual education in public schools; they’re the ones who understand neither religious liberty nor freedom of speech but oddly fetishize both; when issues of the Separation Clause come up, it is toxic Christians out in front whining about their loss of privilege. And they are known far more for who and what they absolutely hate than for who and what they love. Not for nothing did Rachel Held Evans push back against what she called the scandal of the evangelical heart. As a general rule, you can define these Christians by their favorite media network: Fox News.
Unfortunately those sorts of Christians are setting the tone for a lot of the nation’s dialogue about religion.
* Removal of all positive references to any form of Christianity that Fox News fans don’t like.
Fox News famously doesn’t like Catholicism. The Pope is just too liberal for a poor-hating, misogynistic, racist, classist factory of evangelical talking points, and Catholicism in general is suspicious for its “mariolatry” and saint worship. But Fox News didn’t invent evangelical hostility toward Catholicism. Before that network even emerged like grit under Christianity’s fingernails, Jack Chick was writing tracts accusing Catholics and Jesuits of everything under the sun (here’s just one!). And here’s an entire list of evangelicals’ problems with Catholicism, a list I was well familiar with in my day.
So obviously any references to Catholicism must be scrubbed out of a movie aimed squarely at the sorts of Christians who take Fox News seriously. For example, Josh calls astronomer Georges Lemaitre a “theist,” rather than a Catholic priest. It seems like a strange omission; wouldn’t it strengthen Josh’s fallacious argument from authority to mention that?
The movie also doesn’t contain a single other bit of dialogue or action that might serve to criticize Christians in any way. Christian culture refuses to see its members in any other way, and they tone-police and language-police each other to death constantly–one little cuss word, and they’d totally turn off. Can’t have real language infesting their sanitized movie, now can we? Even the violence and worldliness in it is totally acceptable to evangelicals–domestic violence done by a Muslim against his daughter and of course an evil atheist getting hit by a car, and a bit of light drinking by evil atheists in the course of a dinner party. Obviously there’s nothing more sexual shown than a light kiss from a young woman wearing a purity ring, bestowed upon her One True Love who she’s going to marry. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed that this movie scrubs anything from itself that might vaguely bother evangelicals.
* Duck Dynasty, Franklin Graham and the Newsboys as cameo appearances.
By including only cameos from well-known evangelical artists and performers, this movie broadcasts its general antipathy toward anything but the party line of evangelicalism. If they really want to have a “conversation,” they ought to know that conversations are two-sided. But the Christians in its target audience don’t really want a conversation. They want a “non-versation,” as Neil Carter says. They want a captive audience to listen to their preaching. Much like how Lee Strobel did not interview one single critic of Christianity in his “investigative” apologetics work The Case for Christ, this movie doesn’t include a single famous name who isn’t an evangelical. Everybody doing the talking in this movie is an evangelical Christian of the sort who’d appeal to Fox News-watching Christians.
The inclusion of the Duck Dynasty folks is particularly puzzling. Toxic Christians adore those fauxbillies, but in reality they make decent, moral people cringe with their constant stream of anti-gay bigotry, sexism, racism, and all the rest. (I’ve written about them in the past.) The filmmakers trot the reality stars onscreen, let them dutifully answer some softball questions about faith and preach a little, and then have the one guy return at the end to issue his command via an Orwellian screen to the movie’s intended audience–which is obviously evangelical Christians.
* Utter hatred of all out-groups, especially atheists, “with us or against us” mentality, insulting to the extreme of non-believers.
How exactly is this movie supposed to open up discussion if it’s busy insulting non-believers left and right and lying about pretty much everything it asserts about them? The discussion it’s opened up has been solely negative among non-believers–and sane, loving Christians. More often I see Christians separate themselves neatly down the line on this movie: toxic Christians on the one side, totally convinced that this movie is the next best thing to Jesus’ second coming and utterly persuaded of its total veracity, and sane, loving Christians on the other side who are just as repelled and mortified and angry as the rest of us are about how it treats both Christians and non-believers. “I’m embarrassed and ashamed to be called Christian” was a refrain I heard many times from Christian reviewers of this movie, last year and this. One guy even wrote that he wasn’t sure he even wanted to call himself Christian anymore if the definition put forth by movies like this one are supposed to be the operational definition.
And that was just loving Christians’ response. Non-believers have been overwhelmingly offended by this movie.
* Pandering to toxic Christians’ insecurities about persecution.
Interestingly, the very information at the end of the movie that the filmmakers show specifically to demonstrate how so-very-persecuted Christians are serves to illustrate their sheer dishonesty. A number of court cases whizz by the viewer, each apparently an instance of college-based persecution against Christians just for minding their own business, GYAAH…. except as you can probably guess, none of the court cases are really instances of real persecution. This video neatly encapsulates the various distortions presented; here’s a link to it and you’ll want to see the whole review because it’s great (and it’s done by a Christian!), but the court case stuff starts around the 32-minute mark:
But the movie’s creators know perfectly well that none of their target audience will look up those court cases. That’s because their target audience doesn’t use critical thinking or look stuff up that Christians present, but rather believes everything their leaders say.
I seriously cannot think of any other group that bleats this constantly about how persecuted it is on the one hand, but has to lie and distort everything under the sun to make it look that way on the other. But this movie expects its target audience to totally agree with this distorted view, and to take for granted that this persecution needs to be fought by TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
* A twee focus on cheap, meaningless tasks and struggles.
Josh wears a little cross around his neck and has Newsboys swag all over the place–shirts, posters, etc., which is meant to make us think he is very fervent, but there’s no indication that he’s ever really intellectually studied anything about his religion until his big debate, and we never see him attending any youth groups, on-campus faith groups, church services, or prayer meetings. The Duck Dynasty guy says that if Christians will text, at his command, a little message to all their friends, that they’ll greatly impress their god for their obedience. “Persecution” is defined not as martyrdom and physical torture, but rather as being forced to write a phrase on a sheet of paper and have a debate, or else lose part of a grade in an intro class.
If I were Christian, I’d be quite insulted by this movie’s simplistic take on devotion, faith, and personal discipline. Josh is a slack-jawed, befuddled boy who sees little to no character development during this movie, and who doesn’t appear to have really cared much about religion till he got challenged–or to have given much thought to his faith. But the implication this movie makes is that this struggle is the defining moment in his entire life–something that he’ll never forget and always remember and cherish as the time he really devoted himself to Jesus. All this fuss, over a really shitty debate with an intro professor in college.
* Total, laser-like focus on Christians.
There is not a single thing in this movie that speaks to non-believers except to insult them and punish them. But there is lots in this movie that is aimed at believers–talking points they can use, pseudoscience they can argue, and tasks to perform to gain their god’s approval.
At the end of the movie, the Duck Dynasty dude advises Christians to text all their friends about how their god isn’t dead–since non-believers would not be able to arrive at this idea in literally any other way if Christians weren’t constantly saying it was so–and the end of the movie concludes with an implicit request to pursue, legally, any instance of persecution that Christians can imagine or distort into existence. The filmmakers want Christians to take action on these points–to text their friends, to get legally active if there’s the faintest provocation to do so. The movie is speaking to Christians friendly to that message, not to anybody else. People who don’t even believe in the Christian god certainly aren’t going to proselytize for him or raise lawsuits about imaginary persecution. But the Duck Dynasty dude is not talking to them, though. He’s talking to the sort of Christian who gets excited by cheap stunts and talking points, and who will pester their friends upon command.
And on that note, I can add that out of all the church youth groups and small groups that attended this movie en masse, not many of them “saved” any non-believers doing it. I’m guessing most non-believers who saw it did so because they were reviewing it.
I know exactly one atheist who saw this movie without that goal in mind–he had a limited amount of free time and the movie was starting up right then; he didn’t know what it was about and annoyed the youth groups filling the theater by laughing at all the wrong places. He thought it was a comedy for a long time. He is probably the perfect-storm case of the atheist that this movie purportedly wanted to reach: open-minded, friendly to the general idea of spirituality, imaginative, and from a culture that is deeply religious (albeit Catholic). But he called me upon leaving the theater and I can tell you for 100% sure that our conversation did not center around anything this movie wanted it to center around. He did not leave thinking “wow, I should check this religion out again.” No, he left it insulted at how atheists had been treated, at the intellectual dishonesty paraded in it as truth, and of course at the movie’s many technical flaws (the phrase “looked like something from a second-rate film school” might have come up).
What really weirded him out, though, was the reaction of the Christians who’d been in the audience; they all left totally jazzed and pumped for “saving” atheists and discussing the movie’s talking points, which they didn’t know had been debunked ages ago. He was already wincing at the thought of dealing with his small town’s Christians after they’d gotten collectively high on the fumes of this movie, and he was hoping none of them realized that he’d been the guy laughing at it. Thankfully, they don’t seem to have translated their short-term rah-rah into long-term action, but he was worried.
That’s because this movie wasn’t talking to him. It isn’t talking to any non-believers. It’s talking to Christians, and more than that it’s talking to a fairly narrow range of Christians. That’s why nobody involved in this movie even second-guessed the impulse to go with a “Christians very good yay!/Atheists very bad boo hiss” format.
This movie is hugely dishonest, and not just in the court cases it cites.
I’d have had a lot more respect for it if it’d just come out and said “yes, we’re totes evangelical.” It tries so hard to be ecumenical and universal by not mentioning any specific denominations, but its unwillingness to mention denominations won’t matter to its audience, who will interpret everything in it through an evangelical filter. And they’re meant to do that. Its theology is evangelical; its talking points are evangelical; its stars are evangelical; its guest cameos–Duck Dynasty actors, the Newsboys, Franklin Graham–are evangelical; its view of the world is evangelical; its opinion of atheists as the next big danger to Christianity is evangelical; its hatred of higher education and philosophy in general is even evangelical.
The only “conversation” being “opened” here begins with “Why are the fans of this movie so delusional?”
I wonder if any of this movie’s fans realize that saying “I liked this movie a lot” translates in outsiders’ heads to “I endorse this movie’s treatment of you.”
As one last note, in that interview I cited about the Catholicism-scrubbing at the beginning, the movie’s script writers were asked why they didn’t help make actual Catholic movies since they are in fact very fervent gung-ho Catholics. Their reply:
Konzelman: It’s because there aren’t any. Catholics do not fund films. I cannot think of a Catholic film [made in Hollywood] of any size funded in the last five years.
Of course, they blame this lack of a market for Catholic-specific movies on demons and a huge conspiracy to turn people away from Christianity.
Ah, yes, that huge conspiracy that is everywhere but also totally secret. Because it couldn’t possibly be the behavior and dishonesty of Christians themselves that turns people off from their religion. It’s got to be demons.
So next time when we talk about how this movie treats Christians, I want you to remember that it’s talking about its target-audience Christians, not all Christians, and trust me, non-Christians are usually well aware of the divide between those two tribes.
* Average-person reviews of the movie on IMDB – many from outraged Christians and even ministers who realize that this movie is actually going to make it harder to do what they say they want to do: reach non-believers.
* Yet another group of Christian evangelicals totally upset that the movie softened the party-line Creationist stance to be more generally appealing to general Christians. You can’t win for losing, seriously, with that lot.
* Camel with Hammers’ Dan Fincke’s long-form review of the movie, with particular emphasis on where it falls down philosophically and realistically. Settle in and take some time to read this; it’s really good.